Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

First Contact: The English and the Inuit

July 1st, 2009 · 10 Comments

Continuing our ongoing First Contact series, today we’re gonna look back at the 1576 encounter between the English and the Inuit of Baffin Island. The details of the meet-up were recorded by one Christopher Hall, a member of a Martin Frobisher-led expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage to China.

Upon first landing on Baffin Island and climbing a small hill in order to view the bay below, Frobisher and his men initially thought the surrounding waters were teeming with a novel form of seal. But upon closer inspection, these seaborne forms turned out to be Inuits in kayaks. And they were none-too-happy with the presence of the Westerners, who they instantly regarded as enemies. The landing party was chased back to their boat, the Gabriel, and Frobisher contemplated skedaddling at once. But Hall, an amateur anthropologist of sorts, volunteered to go back ashore and parlay with the Inuits (a meeting facilitated with an exchange of hostages). This led to an amicable encounter, in which Hall was able to record 17 Inuit words by pointing to objects. He also made note of the Inuits’ physical similarities to some of Genghis Khan’s most famous subjects:

They be like Tartars, with long black hair, broad faces, and flat noses, and tawney in color, wearing seal skins, and so do the women, not differing in the fashion, but the women are marked in the face with blue streaks down the cheeks, and round about the eyes. Their boats are made all of seal skins, with a keel of wood within the skin; the proportion of them is like a Spanish shallop, save only they be flat on the bottom, and sharp at both ends.

As it turns out, the Inuits were initially right to be afraid of Frobisher. After five of his men disappeared while returning an Inuit hostage—most likely on their own volition—Frobisher decided to split. But before he departed, he managed to kidnap a poor Inuit kayaker by using tinkling bells as a lure, then snatching him up with a hook on a pole. Frobisher dragged this Inuit (pictured above) all the way back to England, where he publicly displayed the captive as a “strange man of Cathay.” Neither English weather nor English food agreed with the Inuit, and he died within weeks of landing in London. Which, sadly, was probably the best fate he could have hoped for at that time—life as a sideshow in Stuart England must’ve been bleak, indeed.


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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Pat

    Brendan! This reminds me of a book, which given your interests in the clashes between wildly different cultures, you might enjoy a lot. It’s called Bloody Falls of the Coppermine, and it’s about the murder of two French missionaries by two Inuit dudes, and the totally wacked-out manhunt and trial that ensued. My friend McKay Jenkins wrote it a few years ago, and come to think of it, you guys would probably have lots to talk about. Book’s on Amazon (or surely just up the hall from your cubby in the library) and he’s on Facebook. Anyway, keep up the fine job here on the blog!

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Pat: Wow, thx a million for the truly up-my-alley rec. Need to grab that book ASAP, along with a few others that are high atop my to-read list (e.g. The Piano Tuner, Drums Along the Congo, and In the Shadow of Swords). Now if I could only carve out enough time to read all of those in quick succession, then move on to the other 200 titles I need to get to before I die…

    Glad you’re enjoying Microkhan. Hope you’ll help spread the good word, my man. Cheers to ya!

  • Tony Comstock

    When we were in St. Augustine on our boat trip the Winter before last, my wife got me a book that was journals from the earliest European explores in N. America. Fantastic stuff, especially the accounts of the abundance of all the wildlife and other wild food stuffs.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Tony Comstock: Title, please. Would like to add to my to-read list. Need plenty more ideas for this First Contact series.

  • Gramsci

    I would also recommend John Muir’s Travels in Alaska. He has some fascinating “first contact” anecdotes, including one where an Inuit hears the story of Jesus and says something like “Yeah we had a chief who let two opposing tribes join in killing him so that they could end their war– so we already know the one about the guy who died to save everybody. Got anymore stories?”

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Thanks for the rec. How’s Muir as a writer? He’s one of those guys I’ve heard so much about, esp. growing up in California and visiting Yosemite. But can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading any of his work. The Peter Matthiessen of his day, perhaps?

  • Gramsci

    I’ve never read Matthiessen either, but bear in mind Muir’s prose turned Teddy Roosevelt into an avid admirer (and into more of an environmentalist). For some he did for “Nature” what Timothy Leary did for psilocybin. Worth a sitting or two.

  • Zak

    If you don’t know them, check out William Vollmann’s Seven Dreams cycle – seven novels (four published so far) about different moments of contact between Europeans and Indians. The first deals with the Vikings in Greenland, second with the Jesuits in Canada, etc. Great stuff.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Zak: Many thanks for the Vollmann rec. Gotta admit, I’ve never tried any of his books, but I’ve long been sorely tempted. Read a mighty intriguing interview in which he expounded at length ’bout his love for hookers–and his wife’s tremendous sympathy for this habit.

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